Big girls do it pregnant, p.14
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       Big Girls Do It Pregnant, p.14

         Part #10 of Big Girls Do It series by Jasinda Wilder
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  I was completely helpless.

  I didn't notice him leave, but at some point, Chase shoved a styrofoam cup of khaki-colored coffee in my hands, too hot, burnt, too sweet, but exactly what I needed. The only sounds were Samantha's breathing, now laced with an occasional wheeze, and the incessant coughing of the baby on the other side of the curtain. When Sam coughed for the first time, I cried again.

  There were no windows and no clocks, no way to measure the passage of time. It could have been midnight; it could have been noon. We'd left for the hospital around four in the afternoon, I thought, but wasn't sure. Chase was antsy, bouncing his knees, sitting in another chair drawn up near mine, continually running his hands through his hair. Then he began humming, mumbling, standing up and pacing the few steps down the length of the room and back, clearly caught up in something in his head. He left the room, and I heard him ask the nurses at the station for a pen and pencil, and then he returned and resumed his seat on the edge of the chair, scribbling on the pad of paper furiously.

  I didn't disturb him, knowing he'd share it when he was ready.

  Abruptly, he stopped pacing, facing me. "I'm supposed to be onstage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, right now," he said.

  I wasn't sure what his point was, so I just stared at him, not trusting myself to not completely lose my shit at him.

  "I had this song for Samantha just pop in to my head. I need to get it out."

  I just nodded, glanced at Samantha while chewing on my nail.

  He took a breath, then started singing a capella. The melody was a lullaby, lilting and sweet and kind of haunting and quiet.

  "I can't breathe for you,

  My darling,

  I can't hold you close enough.

  There's nothing I can do,

  It doesn't matter if I'm strong or if I'm tough.

  Because there's no way for me to imbue

  Any of my strength into you.

  I can only watch and pray,

  I can only stand and stay

  In this room close by your side,

  Praying to a God I've long denied.

  You're so tiny in that bed,

  My darling,

  You're so pale, and, god, so still.

  And I can only watch and pray,

  I can only stand and stay,

  Wishing your body wasn't ill.

  I can't breathe for you,

  My darling,

  There's just nothing I can do.

  But I'm here, just the same,

  Praying over you, I'm watching over you.

  I can't ever hold you close enough,

  My darling,

  I can't ever be strong enough.

  But I'll always, always try,

  I'll comfort you when you cry.

  I kiss away your tears,

  I'll quiet all your fears.

  I can't breathe for you,

  My darling,

  I can only watch and pray,

  I can only stand stay

  In this room, close to you."

  By the end of the song, there was a crowd around the door, nurses, doctors, parents, orderlies. Chase's voice had never sounded so sweet or so soulful. He'd poured his heart into that song as fully as if he'd been on stage in front of thousands of people. When people realized the song was over, they seemed unsure what to do. Clapping seemed inappropriate to them in this setting, I think, but they knew a performance when they saw it. In the end, they scattered one by one, and Chase and I were left alone with our sick, sleeping daughter.

  Chase swayed on his feet, stumbled, fell backward, and landed in the chair, scrubbing his face with his hands almost violently. When his shoulders began to shake, I realized he'd finally cracked the facade of his composure. I left my chair and knelt on the floor between his knees, still sore from childbirth but uncaring of my own discomfort in that moment. I pulled his face against my breast and held him, just held him. He only allowed himself a few moments of shuddering, silent tears before he breathed a harsh, gusting sigh and sat back, wiping his face.

  "I don't know what came over me," he said, "I'm sorry--"

  "Don't you dare apologize," I said, cutting in over him. "Our baby girl is sick, and there's nothing we can do but wait. You're allowed to be upset."

  He nodded, rubbed his face again, breathing deeply. He pulled me onto his lap and I curled up into him, resting my head against his chest, listening to his heartbeat, watching the gentle rise and fall of Samantha's labored breathing.

  At some point I dozed off, and was woken by a wet hacking cough coming from Samantha. Chase was asleep as well, head lolled back uncomfortably on the chair. I slid off his lap and stood over Samantha, taking her hand in mine. She curled her tiny fingers around my index finger and held on tight, cracking her eyes open to peer at me. Her face scrunched up and she coughed again, a wet, wracking cough that tore my heart to shreds.

  A nurse came in, a different one now, a pretty woman in her thirties with blondes-streaked brown hair pulled into a bun. She introduced herself as Laurie and gently but firmly insinuated herself between me and Samantha, placing her stethoscope over Samantha's chest and listening as she coughed.

  "I know this cough sounds really horrible," she said, turning to me, "but she doesn't have any crackles going on, and her pulse-ox is holding steady right around eighty. She's not ready to go home yet, but I don't think she's getting any worse. We'll keep the oxygen on for now, and if you notice a lot of drainage clogging her nose, you can clean it out." She showed us how to do that, squirting some saline into her nose and suctioning it out with a green bulb syringe.

  Samantha absolutely hated this process, kicking and screaming and flailing, but she seemed to breathe easier after it was done.

  More hours passed. My birth-sore body protested the long hours in the same position in the chair, watching the monitors, watching her pulse-ox fluctuate from seventy-two to eighty-four, but never any higher. Chase eventually left, returning with a couple of pre-made sandwiches, bags of chips, and bottles of soda from the cafeteria.

  More coffee, more waiting. Watch her pulse-ox obsessively, willing it to rise. Dozing off fitfully, only to be woken by coughing, by the nurse checking in, by Chase shifting, by my own thoughts.

  Mundane things like TV, music, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram...they all fall away when you're in a hospital room, watching your child suffer. All that matters is the bizarre fast-yet-slow passage of time, the monitors, the readouts and the child. The only status that counts is that of your baby.

  She breathes, she coughs, she sleeps, she needs a bottle. She shits, and you have to change her without making a mess of the monitor leads. You feed her another bottle, holding her against your chest and feeling guilty for each clean, easy breath you take. You do everything so carefully, so thoroughly, in case that one thing you do just right might just possibly make the difference and get her well sooner. You try to sleep, and can't. Your eyes burn, heavy and hot from exhaustion, but there's no comfort, and even if there was, you wouldn't take it, because to be comfortable while your child lies ill is some kind of betrayal. The hospital room, the whiteboard with its layers of not-quite-erased dry-erase writings, the machines and monitors against the wall, the bevy of wires, the TV on mute, tuned to a local channel and playing soap operas and People's Court and Judge Alex and now-ancient and partially familiar reruns of Cheers. The crib, your baby, finally seeming to be asleep, truly resting, for once not coughing or wheezing and giving you a glimmer of hope, despite the pulse-ox readout of eighty-eight, when you know it has to be at least ninety-five before they'll send her home.

  Eventually, a kind of panicked claustrophobia sets in. It's a claustrophobia of time, hour after hour in the tiny room, maybe venturing to the bathroom, choking down food and coffee, listlessly watching crap TV without really caring. You grow desperate for something to change, for healing to occur while you're looking the other way, for the endless monotony to shift. And then you feel guilty for feeling bored when just the
re she's still gasping, her chest still retracting, because if she's not retracting, she might be getting better.

  Eventually Chase made me walk down to the cafeteria, just to get away for a minute. I hated him for making me leave, because I was positive something would happen while I was gone. Interacting with people was an oddity suddenly. I wasn't sure how long we'd been in the hospital. My phone had long since died, and the only marker of time I had was staff shift changes and news broadcasts and which rerun was playing on the TV attached to the wall by a long swivel arm.

  In the cafeteria, I ordered two cheeseburgers and watched the cook as he flipped and pressed them. The cook was an enormous black man, easily six foot six and over three hundred pounds, a chef's hat slouched sideways on his head. He moved with a slow, graceful economy, sure and efficient behind the counter. He wore loose clear plastic food service gloves, black and white checkered pants, a white coat-like shirt with two rows of buttons, over which was a spattered apron; his sleeves were spotless, despite the myriad of stains on his apron. He gave me a hesitant smile as he slid the burgers onto buns and put them into styrofoam containers.

  "What day is it?" I asked him.

  His gaze shifted, and I saw understanding in his eyes. "Thursday. 'Bout seven in the evenin'." His voice was impossibly deep, gravelly, raspy.

  "Holy shit," I breathed. "I've been here for two and a half days."

  He nodded. "Time turns into somethin' odd in them rooms. Makes you forget just about everythin' but them that's sick." He turned away, pulled the basket of fries out of the deep fryer, and shook them, then dumped them into a pan and sprinkled salt on them before scooping some into the to-go containers and handing them to me. "What'chu here for?"

  "My daughter has RSV."

  He nodded. "That shit is awful. My youngest had that. Only three months old."

  "Mine isn't even two weeks old." I popped a scorching-hot fry into my mouth.

  He grimaced. "Goddamn. Sorry to hear it." He scratched his cheek with a huge finger. "She'll be okay, though. They come through it all right. Kids are resilient, you know? They bounce back. She'll be fine. I got four kids, and all but one of 'em got that RSV. They all fine now."

  "Thanks," I said. "It's hard to see, sometimes."

  "I know it does. It's hard just sittin' there. Can't do nothin'. That's the hardest thing."

  I took a deep breath, nodding. "That really is it, isn't it? Being helpless is awful."

  "I know that's true." He slapped the top of the counter with his paw and then waved at me. "Your girl'll be fine, and so will you."

  I nodded. "Thanks."

  I sat down and ate one of the burgers, dipping fries into ketchup squirted out of packets. I was halfway done when someone slid into the chair next to me. It was Anna, in yoga pants and a loose sweater.

  "Anna?" I twisted in my seat to give my best friend a hug. "Why are you here?"

  She looked like how I felt: faded, exhausted, sore. "Caleb is still in the NICU." She snatched a fry from me. "You?"

  "Samantha has RSV."

  "Ugh." She snatched another fry, then rubbed one eye with the heel of her palm. "I haven't even seen her, and she's sick."

  "Is Niall home, then?" I asked.

  She nodded. "Yeah. She's fine. Jeff is home with her. I...I haven't seen him in a week, except in passing. One of us is home, one of us is here."

  "This is the first time I've left the room in three days." I'd finished my burger and was picking at the fries, but found I wasn't hungry any longer. I pushed them to Anna, who picked at them as well. "Can you believe this is us? Married, with babies?"

  Anna laughed, shaking her head. "No, I really can't. I really can't. I feel like a totally different person than I was three years ago. Even one year ago. You know? Like, was that really you and me going to the bar every night? Getting drunk, hitting on guys?"

  I snorted. "I hit on guys. You always chickened out and made me go up to them alone." I bumped her with my shoulder. "You just sat there watching, sipping your pinot grigio and acting aloof."

  "Aloof? Me?" She gave me an incredulous look. "That wasn't me being aloof, that was me being too scared to get off the stool."

  "I kinda wish I'd been more scared than I was. That might have saved me from being as much of a skank as I was."

  "Yeah, maybe." She said it with straight face, then broke down into snickers of laughter.

  I pretended to glare at her. "Very funny, bitch."

  "Hey," she said, laughing, raising her hands in a gesture of defense, "I always tell you you're not a skank, and you just argue with me. So this time I agree with you, and you get mad? Pick a feature, hooker."

  I laughed with her, and it felt good. "Hey, I'm a girl. I'm allowed." I stood up, and Anna stood up with me. "You should come up and see Samantha."

  She nodded. "I'd love to."

  Chase was holding Samantha in his arms, feeding her a bottle when we got to the room. As they always did when he saw Anna, Chase's eyes flickered with scabbed-over pain. It didn't bother me anymore--not much, at least. There would always be pain there, I realized. When your husband has a history with your best friend, there would always be an element of buried pain and unavoidable awkwardness. He smiled at us, his face lighting up as his eyes met mine. That was what made the awkwardness worth it: His eyes always lit up when he saw me, and a smile always spread on his face when I entered a room.

  Anna slathered hand sanitizer on her hands from a dispenser on the wall, then crossed the room to crouch near Chase, touching Samantha's cheek with the back of her index finger. "God, she's adorable. She looks so much like both of you!" Samantha sucked down the last of the bottle, and Chase handed her to Anna, who looked from Samantha to me, and then from Samantha to Chase. "She's got your eyes, Chase, but Jay's nose."

  "Thank god for that," Chase said. "She'd have been doomed if she got my nose."

  Anna laughed and touched the baby nose in question, speaking in the high-pitched voice people use when talking to babies. "Well, hi there, Samantha. I'm your Auntie Anna. You have to get better so your mommy and daddy can take you home. Just like your cousin Caleb. He's got to get better, too, so you can play together. That's right. You'll have so much fun together, yes, you will."

  Chase laughed. "Why do people do that? Talk like that?"

  I slapped his shoulder. "Studies have shown that babies register high pitches better--they respond to them better. We do it naturally because we somehow just know it works."

  Chase gave me a strange look. "Where'd you learn that?"

  "I was stuck with nothing to do but read books and watch TV for weeks. I learned all sorts of shit."

  Anna handed Samantha back to Chase. "I'd better go. You'd better bring her over as soon as possible, okay?"

  "We will," I said. "Now go be with Caleb."

  When she was gone, life in the hospital room resumed its pattern. After an unknowable amount of hours, a doctor swept into the room, an older man with delicate hands and wire-framed glasses and steel-gray hair. After a surprisingly thorough examination, he settled Samantha back in the crib and turned to us.

  "She's doing very well," he said. "She's on the mend, I'd say. Another day, maybe two, and she should be ready to go home. Her breathing seems clear, her retractions are nearly gone, and she's not producing a lot of mucus. I wish I could let you take her now, but I'd rather keep her for another twenty-four or forty-eight hours, just to be safe. Sometimes they reach this point and then have a relapse. I'd hate to have you go home, only to have to turn around and bring her back."

  We both nodded, understanding the logic but not liking it.

  "She'll be okay, though?" I asked, my voice embarrassingly tremulous.

  The doctor nodded, exuding reassurance. "Oh, yes. She'll be just fine. You'll have to watch her breathing for a while, of course, especially as we get closer to winter. You'll be watching for the retractions along here," he explained, tracing a finger along her diaphragm. "If you see that, this working to breath
e, that's when you should bring her in. Hopefully, of course, you won't need to, but that's what you should be on the lookout for, just in case."

  He left then, and Chase and I looked at each other in relief. We finally had a goal in sight, an end in view. I settled myself on Chase's lap once again, and he wrapped his arms around me. His breath tickled my ear and my hair; I'd never been so aware of something so simple as breathing. Even relaxed, sitting here on my husband's lap, I was listening to every breath Samantha took, attuned to every sound.

  I fell asleep on Chase, and I dreamed a mundane and wonderful dream of rocking Samantha in the darkness of her nursery in our Manhattan brownstone.

  Chapter 10: ANNA

  After two and a half weeks in the NICU, Dr. Sherman finally let me take Caleb home. Jeff was at our house with Niall, who, he said, was eating and shitting faster than he could keep up with. He sounded slightly hysterical when he said that. I tried not to laugh. I dressed Caleb in a green and white onesie that had a picture of frog on the front, and the words "hop to it.. I buckled him into his car seat, covered him with a blanket despite the eighty-degree July weather, and left William Beaumont Hospital after nearly a month straight. I'd spent most of my time at the hospital, unable to stay away from Caleb for more than a few hours. I knew Jeff was overwhelmed at being alone with a newborn, and I certainly missed him, but I couldn't stomach the thought of something happening to Caleb while I wasn't there.

  I clicked Caleb into the seat base, then leaned in to kiss his forehead. His eyes were open, and he tracked me as I closed in on him, batted at me with his little fists. I laughed at him, letting him grip my finger for a moment. I don't think I've ever driven as carefully as that ride from Beaumont to my home. I watched every intersection with paranoia as I passed through, braked early, and accelerated slowly. Normally a twenty-minute ride at the most, it took me over half an hour to get home. When I did, I found Jeff asleep on the couch, Niall on his chest covered in a pink blanket with a burp cloth under her face. Jeff's hands were wrapped around her, his long fingers spanning her body and cradling her in place. A bottle sat on the floor, and the TV was tuned to ESPN.

  Caleb was sleeping soundly in his carrier, so I left him there. I gingerly lifted Niall from Jeff's chest and pressed her tiny sweet sleeping face to my breast, breathing in the clean scent of her hair mingling with the faint essence of Jeff. She didn't stir, so I just held her for a few moments, eyes closed, inhaling her presence. My eyes watered, teared up, and I had to quietly sniff them away.

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